This is a loose recipe. I find great pleasure and ease in working with dough, and while the process is not so relaxing for some, there is a connection to be made when working with dough. It shags, it clings, it sticks beneath your nails for days, but it is also forgiving, and soft, a playmate and a dinner companion. Challah is a particularly comforting bread. It is welcoming in scent, texture, and taste, and also a constant on celebratory tables of all kinds in Jewish homes around the world. The dough is enriched with eggs and oil to make it pliable but also retain its shape, making it easy to form to your liking. The traditional form is braided, and the more comfortable you become with the process the more strands can be added to the plait.
1 ¼ c warm water
2 tsp yeast
1/3 c sugar
¼ c oil
4-5 c flour
1 ½ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg + 1 yolk
Dissolve yeast and sugar into warm water. Allow to sit and foam for 10-15 minutes, then stir in 1 c flour. Once incorporated, add egg, one yolk, oil, salt, and vanilla. Stir well, then add flour in 1 c additions as it is absorbed. This is when the process becomes important to feel out—begin to knead the dough with hands when it clears the sides of the bowl without sticking too much. Add more flour as needed, but work the dough for 5-10 minutes until it becomes elastic and smooth. The surface of the ball will change and firm up a bit.
Let the dough rest, covered, in a warm place for at least 1 hour, up to 8 (if longer, refrigerate and thaw for 20-30 minutes before continuing).
When dough has roughly doubled in size and keeps a thumbprint, knead for 5 more minutes, then divide into equal pieces for the number of strands desired. Slightly taper the ends of each rope to create is a batard-shaped loaf is you like. Lay the strands next to each other, about 1 inch apart, on a counter or baking sheet, then weave across. When the length has been woven, pinch the strands together at both ends and tuck beneath the loaf.
Beat egg yolk and brush on top of braid.
Let the loaf rest for 20 minutes, then bake at 350ºF for 35 minutes, or until the bottom sounds hollow when knocked.